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When it comes to the BYU game, Utes’ focus is preparation, not the streak

If the Utes win Saturday, they would earn an unprecedented 10th consecutive win over BYU

Utah running back Zack Moss battles his way through a group of BYU defenders during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
Utah running back Zack Moss battles his way through a group of BYU defenders during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Utah won 30-12, extending its winning streak against the Cougars to nine games. The two teams will square off again Saturday night in Provo.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

During No. 21 Utah’s nine-game winning streak against BYU, the Utes have won games in the waning moments, and they’ve won some handily. They’ve jumped out to big leads and, in 2018, they rallied from a big second-half deficit.

Now Utah is looking to do something unprecedented Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) in the history of the rivalry — capture its 10th consecutive victory. Both programs have won nine in a row against the other. But 10 has never happened.

How important is it for the Utes to accomplish that feat?

“Nothing lasts forever. We’re just approaching it like we do every year and pretty much every game,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “The preparation will be the key. It’s not the emotional part of it or how many wins in a row or any of that stuff. You’ve got to prepare the right way and that’s your best chance to win a game, through great preparation.”

As much as beating BYU means to Utah, the Utes are focusing on the present, not the past.

“The key is to prepare the right way. You prepare hard and you play hard. That’s a simple formula,” Whittingham said. “There are a ton of different aspects of preparation. You’ve got to pay attention to all of them. On game day, you have to play hard.”

Preparation, and capitalizing on opportunities on game day, has been a tremendous formula for success against the Cougars.

Perhaps the stat that has attributed most to Utah’s decade-long dominance over BYU is takeaways.

During the streak, the Utes have forced 29 Cougar turnovers and turned nine of those into defensive touchdowns. BYU, on the other hand, has 14 takeaways, and no defensive touchdowns, against Utah.

Yes, the Ute defense has shown an uncanny knack for causing turnovers and turning them into points against the Cougars. Utah’s offense, meanwhile, has done a better job than BYU of taking care of the ball.

No wonder why Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s game plan is pretty straightforward.

“We’ve got to protect the football and protect the quarterback,” he said. “If we do those two things, we’ll be in good shape.”

When Utah opened the season with a 40-17 win over Weber State last week, there were questions surrounding the offensive line, which dealt with injuries during fall camp.

“We’re just hoping for the best. There’s room for improvement there,” Whittingham said this week about the O-line. “We can be better than we were Thursday night and I expect that we will become better. It’s the old adage of making your most improvement between games one and two. It’s got to show up this week for us. We’ve got to play better this week than we did last week.”

No doubt, one of the keys to Saturday’s game is the battle between Utah’s offensive line and BYU’s defensive line.

How did center Nick Ford assess the O-line’s performance in the opener?

“We played well. There’s are things we have to fix, from me having a couple of missed snaps to everyone having missteps. We want more physicality,” he said. “We averaged 6.2 yards in the run game. We want more than that. Some people would say that’s a good average. But for us, it’s not enough.

“We’ve got to protect the quarterback more. We need improvement everywhere. Not to say that we had a bad performance but our standard should be held higher. And they will be.”

Meanwhile, quarterback Charlie Brewer, who has played in plenty of big games during his career at Baylor, completed 19 of 27 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns in his first game at Utah.

“Charlie did everything that he needed to do. We had three drops and a couple of blown assignments on the offensive line. There wasn’t a single play where you were frustrated with Charlie,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “It was an amazing performance and a simple performance.

“It wasn’t like he did anything spectacular or out of the ordinary. He just handled his business and he was clean. Having that in the first game from your quarterback is huge. You expect a lot of random mistakes in the first game, which we had, but from our quarterback, we didn’t.”

“He did well. He’s a calm guy — calm, cool and collected,” Ford said of Brewer. “He has good command of the offense. He can sling the ball and can run the ball. Everything that he’s been praised to do, he’s able to do it here, you can clearly see it.”

Brewer was impressed with BYU’s defense in its season-opening win over Arizona.

Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) takes a snap during the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Weber lead 7-3 at the lightning strike delay.
Utah quarterback Charlie Brewer takes a snap during season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“They play really good as a unit. They’re very disciplined,” he said. “They know what they do really well. Overall, they’re really solid and they run to the football.”

Another problem that revealed itself last week was several dropped passes by Utah receivers and tight ends. It’s been a point of emphasis this week in practice.

“The receivers and tight ends had the drops. Some would have been tough catches but some were just plays that we need to make 10 out of 10 times,” Whittingham said. “We’ll get back on the Jugs machine and continue to emphasize looking the ball in and making the catch before you start to run, that type of thing.

“It’s something that are drive-killers. Some of those drops cost you touchdowns and/or they fail to keep a drive going. It’s something we need to correct. We had five of them. That’s way too many.”

Ford knows exactly what he wants to see from his offense Saturday against BYU.

“Just firing on all cylinders,” he said. “All 11 players doing their assignment and doing it well. If we do that, I don’t see anyone in the country beating us, to be honest.”

Utah knows that avoiding miscues, like turning the ball over, has played a huge role in its nine-game winning streak.

Covey has been thinking this week about the task at hand, not the streak.

“You acknowledge the streak by looking back and seeing why we have the streak,” he said. “I have the privilege of being part of four games against them and seeing why did we win. What did we do that propelled us to win? That helps you focus more on the preparation and less on the streak.”